We’ve all been there – you think that you are on the last day of your period or it decides to make a surprise early appearance and you are without a pad or tampon. You go to those clunky, rusty metal machines that very occasionally hold the world’s worst tampons made out of cardboard that must come from the depths of Hell.
Suddenly, you remember that you (sadly) no longer carry around a Hannah Montana coin purse; who uses change these days anyways? You are faced with the ultimate dilemma – hope that you do not bleed through your white jeans (because of course you’re wearing white jeans) or try to make the mad dash back to your dorm across campus before the lecture that has mandatory attendance and a professor who closes the door exactly at 8:59:59 a.m.
Now, you no longer have to make the decision between expensive pants or a poor attendance grade thanks to graduate, Annabel Forward (C’22), and seniors, Pauline Mashburn (C’23) and Anne Dobson Ball (C’23), (with a little bit of help from Women’s and Gender studies Professor Molly Brookfield). The idea came to Annabel Forward after she helped to plan Period Equity Week, a week at Sewanee dedicated to recognizing the inequity that people face across the United States and globally when it comes to accessing menstrual products. We see this inequity and inaccessibility on our own campus; Mashburn says, “Not only is there a gap for students who are unable to afford these products, but there is a general gap on campus when anyone is just caught off guard and needs a product.”
In her Women’s and Gender Studies senior seminar class, Brookfield assigned a “Feminism in Action” project, which she says is “designed to give WGS majors and minors a chance to put all they have learned about feminist theory into practice through a project that will have a real-life impact on their lives, communities, and the Sewanee campus.” Mashburn, Ball, and Forward researched menstrual inequity and the correlations between mental health among college-aged students and period poverty, finding a study by BMC Women’s health that said, “Compared to those who had never experienced period poverty, adjusted analysis revealed that women with monthly past-year period poverty were the most likely to report moderate/severe depression.”
They went on to do further research around campus and found that there were only about three places around or in Sewanee where you could purchase period products (the University Bookstore inside Fitwell, the Sewanee Market, and the CVS in Monteagle). On top of being in a menstrual product desert, these products are also taxed as luxury items in the state of Tennessee. They also discovered that many of the machines around campus were installed around the same time that women were first being admitted to Sewanee, meaning that these machines are older than every student that is currently on this campus.
In response to these startling findings, the three of them, with the guidance of Brookfield, prepared a presentation to the Vice Chancellor’s Cabinet where they asked for three Aunt Flow machines to be placed around campus. Specifically they asked for these in the first-floor women’s restroom of DuPont Library, the women’s restroom in McClurg Dining Hall, and the gender-neutral bathroom of Carnegie Hall. Aunt Flow machines provide free, biodegradable, 100% organic cotton pads and tampons that are also compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning that they are free, easy to access, and eco-friendly. The Aunt Flow machines are also much more aesthetically pleasing looking and made out of rust-resistant materials, meaning that you do not have to worry about getting a tetanus shot after grabbing a free pad or tampon.
Long term, Ball says that they “see this project as a strong step in the right direction and an easy and effective way to help anyone on our campus who menstruates. By providing free products in various locations on campus, we are able to bridge the gap in menstrual equity on our campus.” According to the Aunt Flow website, other universities, such as Princeton University and the University of Georgia, have installed these machines in restrooms across their campuses, displaying that period inequity among college students is a national issue. Thankfully, Sewanee is taking a step in the right direction, thanks to Forward, Mashburn, Ball, Brookfield, and the Vice-Chancellor’s Cabinet.